Friday, March 30, 2012

Y O Y did I enter the A 2 Z Challenge?



Dude. Why did I sign up for this? Am I out of my mind? This challenge of a blog a day for 26 days almost killed me last year so what possesed me to sign up for it again, particularly as I know I won't have as much time as last year and my blogs will be inferior?

And while I say now I don't care, at some point around "M" it will hit me that my writing is inferior to last year, I'll have a hissy meltown and wander around the back yard muttering about the direction or lack of it my life is taking. Because if there's one thing I hate it's regression. An Italian tank may have 9 reverse gears and one forward gear, but I'm the other way round.

Sadly this runs counter to the ageing proces that suggests at some point in our lives we'll all be sitting in the corner of some godforsaken old folks home, drooling on ourselves or muttering "winning" like Charlie Sheen, every time the nurse mashes up our food.

I had forgotten about the A-Z challenge until someone emailed me about it this week. They suggested I keep blog entries short which is rather good advice but not advice I always heed.

I decided to narrow it down to a more specific theme. The first thing that popped into my mind was parts of a toilet cistern. Don't ask me why? It's been that kind of week. My laptop that once seemed a ticket to freedom has become a sinister jailer. And an image of the guy who stole it recently occasionally pops up. He looks like such a friendly sort, sitting there on the sofa, idly caressing his colt 45 and running his hand lovingly through the matted her on the head of his pit bull. I digress.

I discounted the cistern idea due to the quite practical fact I can't name any parts of a cistern, apart from the ball cock, and I don't even know if that's it's proper name. You have to pity plumbers, though.

"Good morning Mrs. Jones. I am here to check out your defective ball cock."

The good news is I now have a theme for the A-Z challenge. And I do feel it will be easier than last year. And I do hope I will gain more followers even if they don't come back any time soon. Because life is a big numbers game. Only then are we winning, Charlie.

Enjoy the A-Z ride.

And here's an entry from last years. Just because.

B is for Busybodies



When Jackson attended a daycare closer to home I used to have time to drop into Starbucks. I didn't have much time but 30 minutes in the morning was a great interlude to chill with a book before work.


I like Starbucks, even though you can end up remortgaging your house to pay for a triple cherry, quadruple fluffed mattressochino if you are not careful.


I always order a small house coffee and make a beeline for the comfy chair. While Starbucks was seen as an extension of American cultural imperialism back in Britain because the company would take over all the nicest historic structures. over here it feels rather sophisticated and abstactly ethical for a chain.


However, Jackson's daycare was switched up a couple of months ago. I no longer pass Starbucks. The best I can hope for is a roadside 7-Eleven.


Now 7-Elven coffee is a strange concept. The first time I found one I was rather excited by the choices that include Colombian, Mountain Roast and a number of other exciting sounding brands.




It's only after trying them all that you come to the conclusion there's one basic flavor; and it's dessicated camel poo.


So now I am under no illusions. I am there for the caffeine fix; nothing more, nothing less.


Except the 7-Eleven I am frequenting in Suffolk has one other factor going against it, the resident busybody.


I'm moody enough knowing I'm going to work and am about to ingest camel poo. As if that weren't bad enough, this individual, a rangy middle aged employee with oversized hair, is always at the coffee counter with a rancid looking cloth in her hand, pretending to be doing something.


When I move to the left to grab a coffee pot she'll move to the left; when I move to the right, she'll move to the right. I daresay if I performed an amazing leap to the ceiling I'd find her blocking my way to the strip light.

"Oh, I'm not in your way am I?" she'll say as she again blocks my path to the stirring sticks and starts refilling them one by one with the speed of a tortiose coming out of hibernation.


"Not at all."


Of course I want to say: "Can't you sod off Doris and stack some mints somewhere else."


I don't actually know her name but if it's not Doris, it should be. That or Doreen, certainly not Paris.




Now my coffee coordination skills in the morning are not at their best as it is, mainly because I am caffeine deprived. I have to get out my notebook and draw a flow chart that links pouring to milk to lid etc. So imagine my consternation when the busybody is blocking Route One to the lids.




Yesterday she was grabbing the creamer container, mindlessly refilling it, even though it was almost full. A guy almost got into a circular kind of altercation with her as he pulled it one way and she pulled it back again.


I couldn't even dispose of my sugar wrapper down the chute without her throwing herself into my path with her manky old cloth, wiping the rim. Note to self: Resist the urge to scream out 'please stop cleaning my hole'


I'm not sure what's with the 7-Elven busybody but I'm starting to get a complex that she lies in wait in some busybody recess and ambles over to the coffee counter as soon as she sees me getting out of my car. This is probably exess paranoia on my part but busybodies can do this to you.




I'm not sure if my definition of busybodies is the same as that of the national debate which seems to equate the term with liberals who are taking away our rights.




U.S. Senator Rand Paul’s toilets don’t work. And, he says, it’s the government’s fault, reports Bloomberg.com, for example.


This seems to relate to low energy flushes and efficient lightbulbs.


But frankly I don't care too much about that. I'd just like this infernal woman to stop getting between me and the miserable jar of coffee that might keep me awake for a couple of hours longer.



Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Secret to the Next Big Thing in Social Networking




I don't go on Google+ much partly because I don't really understand it. I find myself going round in circles; literally and what's with all the subgroups and circles within circles? It reminds me of a when I was forced to draw Venn diagrams in maths. I could never see the point but whoever has come up with the site Fuck Yeah Venn Diagrams on Tumblr seems to be rather keen on them.

This site has got me thinking. Not just about Venn diagrams of the most exotic and sexy kind but about Tumblr generally. I'm not really sure what it is but should I join? I'm a sucker for joining clubs I know little about. The scouts took me unawares;  it was years before I could to escape from their sinister clutches. And what about that time on a press trip in DC when I was almost persuaded to join the Hare Krishna because the girl who collared me was pretty and I rather fancied the idea of hanging out in some commune in India for a couple of years. In the end their bad taste in clothes put me off. Their singing was pretty bad too.

I suppose Hare Krishna was a prototype kind of social network but when you use the contemporary social networks you don't get to stare at people's hairy feet much. Unless you are friends with hobbits who like to post footy pics.

Still I have social networking angst. I work for people who want me to get their message out on the latest social network but I'm not sure what it is. Facebook has been with us so long it's like an ingrowing toenail. We check on it a lot but there is little pleasure particularly as it's populated by dozens of people from old jobs who we don't like anymore who are always posting mindless nonsense about Tim Tebow and other football players.

Twitter has grown on me because it's quick and doesn't involve such a lot of interaction. You quickly tweet something, often automatically, and get out of there. It's like putting your head into a room of stuffy old executives, telling them they suck and getting off the premises with no adverse consequences.

So the time is right to stumble on (I think this is the name of a social network too) the next big thing in social networking. My good friend and last link with the world of young people, Jennifer, tells me Pinterest is for girls to post girl things.

Actually blog friends are a good social network and one I don't use enough. But I try to take a few minutes on a Sunday to skim read blogs and to concur that 45 isn't old Robyn, although when I was a kid I assumed I would die a geriatric at 30.

Blog followers are great because they provide a window into other people's lives. I would really not have known Megan dressed as a pirate at school had I not checked out A Daft Scots Lass. Had I not read Pearl Why You Little I would be blissfully unaware of the practice of "butt dialing."

But this really strikes a cord because I do butt dial sometimes and unfortunately it's usually to a very bad tempered, former council member called Barry whose last scheduled conversation about three years ago contained the expression: "I'm going to sue you."

Reading Daisy's blog makes me feel unvirtuous and aware that I should do some community work, in the five seconds I have during the day when I am not searching for the next big social network.

Jayne's Suburban Soliloquy never fails to blow me away on a Friday night. "Places saturated in deep alluvial and poseidon hues, where prismatic skies swirl and lime-coated mountains plummet madly into ravines."

I have never heard of Newark, NJ described in such terms before.

Tim Riley takes me back to the world of education - The whole intrinsic vs. extrinsic thing. Emm in London  makes me think of those blue remembered hills. Happy Frog makes me think of lots of random things, but mainly Champagne and drinking. And St. Bloggie de Riviera, those exotic times in Monaco, which was so expensive the only place we could eat was outside McDonald's where the local seagulls decided to show their disdainful attitude at our cheapness by unloading on us from a great height.

Seriously there are so many good writers out there, like Rek from a Chronicle of Dreams, and Li from Flash Fiction, and I often take them for granted and fail to read them because they are parked there on the blog roll.

There are probably a lot of us out there parked on a great virtual blog roll, waiting for our next big chance or a parking ticket, dreaming idly of our names being written large in fuzzy fluorescent letters on a virtual cloud up and the very top of the blogisphere. It's probably a bit like standing on the sidewalk on a rainy November night in Newark, NJ, waiting for a big yellow taxi to take us somewhere else, although we don't know where.

In the end, as Deborah from Fashion Plate points out it's all about words. But words are contradictory little constructs that can have many meanings and I don't know for the life of me why we send so many of them spinning out there like big old irresponsible slabs of space rock that may hit or miss their targets.

Given my increasingly disjointed life that contains a myriad of different demands, I have no idea why I signed up to the A-Z challenge again - maybe a lonely impulse of delight drove to this tumult in the cyber clouds. But at least I know I have the support of Sue from Traverselife and L from Nubian, when she's not taking pictures of elephants' arses in South Africa.

So when you have such fantastic people, as well as many others I have failed to mention, in your blogisphere why do you need to find the next new thing in social networking?

The same could be said about the South Pole. Was there a reason why men had to perish to find a few feet of snow that looked the same as any other two feet of snow? Only Captain Scott has the answer and 100 years ago today he was dragging his feet back from the pole, only to perish a few days away from safety.

I'm going away from the computer now. I may be gone some time.












Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Getting the novel back on track

Returning to my novel after an absence wasn't easy. I had panicked at the apparent requirement of the writing class to complete up to 30 pages. No matter how verbose I tried to be it wasn't approaching 30 pages. Not even when I increased the size of the text.

In the end a bereavement meant the class was cancelled until April. This gave me another reason to slack off because I normally need a deadline. But here it is on track again, in a manner of speaking, but who knows where it's going. Not me - that's for sure.




At 7 p.m. sharp the door of Court Number 3 swung open and I was reunited with Moriarty, his Puma bag and his beige squash shorts from a bygone era. Two weeks had gone by but little had changed about him.




Once again he struck his hand forward and clasped mine: "Moriarty," he said in a measured tone.



"Yes. We have met."



"Oh, right."



Moriarty seemed just as distant as before, although there was an uncertain hesitation and an attention to detail as he weighed up the better of two squash balls.



We tossed for who would serve. He won and he was soon back into his mechanical stride, expending little energy and giving even less away. His silence started to get to me after a while and I toyed with the idea of barging into him to get a reaction. Still, my game seemed better tonight. I was getting the measure of him and while he had a lot of upper arm strength there was a certain predictability about his game, a lack of imagination behind his power.



I won the first set.



"OK," said Moriarty without any visible evidence that he was a bad loser.



I felt confident I had the measure of Moriarty's game, but whenever I felt myself surging ahead, I would play a poor shot and be punished by his powerful back hand. All the times in my life when I had struggled to find the killer instinct came back to haunt me, pushing the elusive killer instinct further from my grasp. Even so I found myself serving for the match. Just then a vision of my small room overlooking the empty park came to mind and I didn't want the game to end. I paused with the ball but realized the futility of my actions which must have wasted no more than 10 seconds.



Just then Moriarty's phone sounded from deep inside his giant bag.



He muttered an apology and pulled out a giant black brick-like object from his bag. His phone was outmoded even for the nineties.

There was a stream or barely audible and shrill words tripping over each other from the receiver.



"She's what?" said Moriarty.



More urgent sounding words, followed.



"Oh, God."



The brick went crashing into the bag with a force that approached urgency.



"Look," said Moriarty turning to me. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave. Family problems. That sort of thing."



"OK. No problem."



"Bugger."



"What is it?"



"I just realized I came here by train," said Moriarty, to himself as much as me.



"I have a car nearby. I can drive you." I realized, as I said it that it was a curious notion for London; I felt I had informed him my flying saucer was parked behind the squash courts.



"I can get a cab," he snapped back.



"In Southgate, you'll probably have to wait 40 minutes. If it's an emergency..."



"Bugger," he repeated.



He hesitated and I realized it was tantamount to accepting my ride. Part of me felt a thrill to be part of somebody else's adventure.



"Well it's Hackney, I'm afraid," he said. "You can just drop me off. You don't have to hang around."



I led him out of the squash court, firm in my resolution to hang around. On the way out we caught a withering glare from Mavis who was clearly perturbed at our clear breach of protocol in leaving without pencilling up the scores on the cork board by her office.



Hackney called again. When we reached the car I felt a wave of shame come over me at the modest chicken tikka colored Ford Escort with handles to operate the window and chocolate wrappers strewn over the front seat. I imagined Moriarty had something like a Saab tucked away in a garage somewhere but if I wondered why he would take the train if that was the case.



"Ah Dagenham's finest," he remarked morosely, patting the flimsy panels on the side of the door.



We weaved in and out leafy streets, Moriarty looking distractedly out of the window all the time. Then his phone rang again. "Yes Laura. I'm on my way. She's done what?"



Soon the trees gave way to concrete and stores that had lost their right angles and seemed to be sinking into the street, flimsy cardboard signs and bars over their windows. There are parts of Tottenham and Hackney that look more like Calcutta and I had a knack of finding them. Drunks saluted us with their middle fingers and street dogs picked up their pace to slide back into the shadows. It was hard to imagine people living in parts of the city like this, but I said little as Moriarty grunted his directions in monosyllables.



Then somewhere near Hackney Wick, the baleful yellow street lights gave way to blue light and I realized we were on the edge of an incident scene.



"Thanks but really, you can drop me off here," said Moriarty.



"I should get you closer," I said.



"No really. Here will do." There was a steeliness in his voice which reinforced my impression of him as a one time Army man.



"OK," I replied, trying to hide a sharp edge of resentment.



"Yes. Thanks again old boy. Good game." And he was gone, his long legs carrying his bulky frame at a bewildering rate towards the blue lights at the end of a rundown street of high rise apartments.



I hit the accelerator, but eased off around the corner and parked. The evening had become too interesting to end just yet. I parked the Escort and crept slowly down the pavement in the direction of the blue lights. There was such a melee of police and firefighters it was easy to go unnoticed.



There was a large firefighter who seemed to be acting as a gatekeeper but I slipped past him when his back was turned. The whole scene was a ghastly pastische of flashing blues and reds, turning faces in the crowd on the street garish. All eyes were looking upwards to the 4th level where a woman in a nightgown with hair that may once have been blonde, tottered on a ledge. Even from that distance I could make out the whites of her fear filled eyes as she moved backwards and forwards.



The whole scene appeared so like a movie, down to the firefighters holding a large net below the apartment block, that I started to wonder if it was real or if I had walked into a set. But the shrill expressions and the way some people were covering their eyes gave authenticity to the Hollywood style scene in a less then glamorous part of town. To the left of the crowd and apart from them, I noticed Moriaty and a teenage girl. He was shouting something at the woman and waving his hands, albeit with little urgency. I had no doubt he was integral to the scene. I recognized the girl from the railway platform.



The woman waved her arms around, took a jerky step back and over compensated with a shriek. Suddenly there was a puff of powder from the ledge and she was falling through the air. I saw her twist in slow motion and her face contort as if this wasn't at all what she intended, before she headed fast for the ground.





Friday, March 16, 2012

Christy Brown, a true Irish hero




Back at school no St. Paddy’s Day was complete without Mr.Tate’s monologue during morning assembly devoted to Christy Brown. Mr. Tate, himself of Irish extraction and no friend of a Tory government that was in favor of Draconian powers of arrest in Ulster, would exhort us to identify with his boy’s own hero.


Christy Brown was born in 1932 with cerebral palsy after he was partially suffocated during birth. His body didn’t work but his mind was brilliant

The only part of his body he could control was his left foot. His devoted mother Bridget spent hours helping him learn to read and write in a time when Ireland had no time or inclination to educate the disabled.

My school friends had the same attitude. The class issued a collective groan whenever Tate started banging on about the “crip” again. Kids are invariably cruel.

Brown proved the naysayers wrong. He wrote two bestselling books later, confounding the doctors.

During my short time in teaching I tried to get the class interested in Brown but nobody really cared. Could I really blame them given my classmates’ reaction 25 years earlier? I wanted to show them the movie but it was banned because it contained swear words. I found this odd, given that many of the students spent their weekends listening to the misogynistic hate-filled tirades of rappers.

It felt funny to realize I had become like Mr.Tate, albeit a pale imitation containing a good deal less of the emerald isle. Mr. Tate was markedly more successful in teaching, even if his efforts to get a Labour MP elected in Gloucester were unsuccessful in the freewheeling eighties.

Tate burned with the Irish inferiority complex and the notion that he was treading water in a sluggish educational system, while in reality he probably affected the lives of more students than anybody else in the school, not that either the teacher or his disaffected pupils realized it at the time.

And Christy’s story became a classic tale of beating adversity against the odds. He was immortalized in the 1989 film My Left Foot that won Daniel Day Lewis an Oscar as best actor in a leading role and Brenda Fricker a best actress in a supporting role Academy Award as Brown’s mother Bridget.

And although Brown died at the age of 49 in 1981 after choking on a lamb chop, his story is depicted in the film and in literature as a “happily ever after” tale.

At least until the 2007 book by Georgina Louise Hambleton, that painted a picture of an increasingly bitter man who was married to a prostitute and lived his life in what a reviewer from the Observer described as “an angry, alcoholic haze.”

Hambleton suggested Brown’s wife Mary Carr abused him mentally and physically. “It seems, though, that the relationship slowly eroded his soul, destroying his art and then him,” Hambleton said.



Even if Brown’s life departed from the script of the film, he remains an inspiration. Christy Brown once wrote: “From the gutter of my defeated dreams you pulled me to heights almost your own.”

Perhaps rather than banging on about leprechauns and shamrocks on St Paddy’s Day and getting misty eyed about what the Pogues dubbed “the land that made us refugees,” we’d be better off remembering Christy Brown - a true Irish hero.







Monday, March 12, 2012

My word verification hell




I have wrestled long and hard with my conscience before posting this. I feel like an old guy in a grubby rain coat who has spent the last 50 years keeping a dirty secret to himself: "Psst I get off on surgical casts."

Thankfully this is not my confession but it's almost as embarrassing. OK here goes. I regularly fail word verification.

I'm not sure if I'm alone in this but the letters are often so funny and jumbled they are hard to read. Somebody is clearly having a laugh. What's most alarming is there's a spiel that says you have to go through the ordeal of word verification to prove you are human, and by implication, not a robot.

(Pause to remove a small aerial from the back of head).

This is unnerving because robots are generally not sympathetic sorts of fellows. Ash in Ridley Scott's 1979 movie Alien was a robot and he lacked the quality of empathy that humans can occasionally display. Ash was also played by Ian Holm who was later to be cast in the role of another sinister character with hairy feet to boot (or rather no boot),  - Bilbo Baggins.

Ash is eventually deactivated. He's also decapitated. But his decapitated head is reactivated to provide the crew the truth about the bloodless one. Ash tells the crew the company installed him on board the spaceship to ensure the creature was brought to them, and the crew's lives were expendable, all of which sounds about par for the course for your average US company, even if it's not spelled out in the manual on the day you meet the nice man from HR.

After informing the crew all they know about the creature, that has already wrecked John Hurt's lunch, Ash tells the crew, "You have my sympathies," regarding their chances of survival.

The crew don't appear to believe Ash's head is any more sincere than the rest of him was. Ripley pulls the plug on Ash and Parker burns his head.

And nobody lives happily ever after. The excursion into Alien took me some way away from word verification, but you get the drift.

Normally I don't have much to do with word verification. I'll avoid your blog like a mild bout of the black death if you have word verification on the comments. It's not personal.

But in the wonderful world of marketing I find myself coming across word verification on numerous occasions. None of them are pleasant as the wall would be able to testify if walls could testify.

I really can't see the point of this torture. The official line from Blogger on word verification is: "What this does is to prevent automated systems from adding comments to your blog, since it takes a human being to read the word and pass this step.

"If you've ever received a comment that looked like an advertisement or a random link to an unrelated site, then you've encountered comment spam. A lot of this is done automatically by software which can't pass the word verification, so enabling this option is a good way to prevent many such unwanted comments."

Grudgingly I concede there's a point to it but I'll take the unwanted comments. They must be lonely if nobody else does.

I'm also scratching my head about why the letters need to be so bizarre looking and illegible. Surely there's a better way. I'm sure it was easier to make out the writings on the side of a pyramid.

A few days ago I discovered there is something of an alternative in that a voice can instead tell you what the characters are.

The trouble is the voice is tinny and sinister and guaranteed to completely put you off your stride. It sounds a bit like Ash telling me: "You have my sympathies."








Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tracks and Lines

CHAPTER 3 - LINES




I compare my thirties to a railway station. One with yawning great exists and entrances on both ends. I'm old enough to have lines coming in but lines are also going out, leading to who knows where. It's an apt comparison for me because trains have never been far from my life.




The home where I grew up was an old railway worker's cottage, and although it had modern windows and a conservatory sometimes I would feel the soul of the roughly hewn home, seeping through the trappings of modernity.

At night the express trains would come rattling past and the walls would shudder and it felt as if the terraced house wanted to follow the train down the line. I imagined I'd wake up the next morning to find the cottage had been shunted away down the valley but the view was the same, the trees forming an austere line and the high ridge of the dark moors beyond.



I often wondered if the emptiness of it all was the reason why I sought the city. Walkers came to the high moors in their yellow raincoats in the summer to get away from the Smoke as London was known back then but the hard empty moonscape left me feeling exposed and wanting to surround myself in bustle and disorder.

Perhaps I wanted to get away before the iron in those hills entered my soul. My father was a Yorkshireman and I often thought the thinner oxygen of those altitudes had reduced his blood. I'm not sure why he had a family because his kids always seemed an embarrassment or an inconvenience and you'd catch him looking at you obliquely some days as if he has spied a strange shaped table that didn't belong in the house.



"Well he's bringing his fancy big city ways to Ilkington. Eel be out by Christmas. You mark my words," he'd say of a succession of new vicars that the hapless Church of England sent north to convert the heathens.

And sure enough my father and his cronies from the Old Boot would ensure the "soft arsed southerner" had packed his bags shortly after Harvest festival, talking glibly about the delights of Dorset which was a code for a place without big raw boned northern bullies, where little old ladies shook your hand outside the church on a warm spring morning.



When my father spoke of the big city he was speaking of Manchester or Leeds. Of London he seemed to have no perception and the idea of people moving to the capital was akin to forging an existence on one of the less hospitable satellites of Saturn.



My mother existed. I never really knew if she had a personality before she met my father but she certainly didn't have one afterwards. She was there to serve his every whim but at least she could bake fine cakes.



So the railways held a special significance for me. As a child I would sit in the chilly trees and watch the trains below me heading in a blue and yellow blur to Huddersfield and Nottingham and eventually south to London.

My original perception of the capital came from a metal biscuit tin and an engraving of the Great Fire of London. There was a huge cathedral, gaunt and skeletal being consumed by the flames, and the distinctive pinnacles of the Tower, so bijou and innocuous looking for a citadel steeped so much blood. And the people teemed over London Bridge and the houses leaned into each other. It was busy, deadly, exhilarating.



While other kids sniffed solvents, hung out at only disco in town and chased after the only girl in town, Maureen Davies with her curiously wrinkled stockings, I methodically plotted my escape. I hung out in my chilly room for hours at a time reading Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, putting myself in the nicely polished shoes of the old rascal as he walked the festering streets of London.



"I went all the first part of the time freely about the streets, though not so freely as to run myself into apparent danger, except when they dug the great pit in the churchyard of our parish of Aldgate. A terrible pit it was and I could not resist my curiosity to go and see it."



Later on I read about Jack the Ripper and the horror of Whitechapel. More densely packed streets and families living eight to a tiny room with a clinical killer in their midst.

While these grisly tales would have put many a stout northern soul off visiting the capital, they spurred me on with the curiosity of a war correspondent intent on visiting the in vogue battle spot of the day which was Beirut when I was a teenager.

I wanted a danger that was more palpable than Mrs. Bowern's poodle being decapitated by an Austin Maxi. I wanted life, however risky and unpredictable it might be.



The railways for me were the way out. When the weekends arrived I would spend money I earned from humping around sacks of flour on a train ticket. Within an hour I'd be in Leeds with its blackened urban spires and tower blocks. I'd hang around for most of the day doing urban things, delighting in the anonymity afforded to me by the city.



I was drawn to the stations of these great cities, arched like vast hothouses, the domain of errant pigeons, their wings sooted up from layers of old grime deposited decades ago by the last of the steam trains.



When I was 15, I made it to Liverpool Lime Street, the venerable station opened in 1836 that's overlooked by the chateau-like former North Western Hotel designed by Alfred Waterhouse. It was converted into student accommodation by the time I managed to see it, and few of the hung over specimens saw wandering around seemed to have any interest in the architecture of their temporary home.

I walked the streets around the station but became more lost every time I turned down another blind alley and the streets became more threatening. Under the rotting concrete edifice of the Catholic cathedral dubbed "Paddy's Wigwam" children with pock marked faces followed me down the street, intent on helping me part with my train fare home.

Their mothers looked on sullenly from door slabs under washing lines of yellow clothes where weeds grew in the poorly strained air. There would be no mercy or respite from my tormentors until I got up the hill where the Anglican cathedral soared to the foggy skies red and austere, its head high above the urban wasteland that was the closest Britain could get to Beirut, although Liverpool’s social mix and tensions made it more akin to Belfast, just a short ferry ride away across the muddy waters of the Irish Sea.



Liverpool shocked me but it failed to divert me from my urban dreams. So it was no surprise when I found myself on another train a year later, clutching a note for an interview and a one way ticket, as the King's Cross station loomed out of the mess of wires and graffiti.

King's Cross with its low rent homes, its con men, spivs and prostitutes, was every bit more dangerous than Liverpool. King’s Cross as a welcome to London resembled an upright finger.



It was just an interview but I wasn't going home. Fortunately the job was so dire, I was offered it. I could imagine my father from afar, wearing his puzzled and put out face on for a few moments before he picked up his cap from the nail in the kitchen and made his way down the Old Boot to discuss his son's disappearance with his friends before diving into the real meat of the cricket scores.



The thoughts of the past flitted in and out like the sun that flooded in and was shut out by the tunnels down the line. Railway dreams like the lines moved in diverse directions, uncertain and suburban, jolting and stopping but always taking me somewhere. I wondered as the identikit homes of Southgate came into view, how London could ever have seemed so exciting from afar. I wondered about familiarity and the way it reduces wonder to an everyday commodity.



I remembered tonight's game of squash was with Paul Moriaty and my interest was piqued briefly because he seemed so different from the usual crowd at the squash club, the Clives and the Derricks with their body shops and insurance brokers and their faux matiness, their gray slip on shoes and their fondness for Tottenham Hotpsur.

Not for the first time I wondered what drew Moriaty to the obscure squash club in the park.


Four miles away where the Hackney skyline did its best to obscure the late afternoon sunshine Laura left the fourth floor apartment and walked into the Red Dog cafe.

The crowd looked up and greeted her with the understated approval reserved for hip chicks. She knew there were guys there who wanted to remark on her boots but didn't have the courage, given her reputation for a swift put down.

She knew the rip in her red tights was small enough to be cutting edge but not too obtrusive. Her eyes were darkened with mascara and her lipstick as vibrant as her tights. Just one thing was gnawing away at her air of composure and quiet attitude and it was a large one and the same one as always.


When Robbie had first cameto visit he had been a burning man, burning up and consumed with her mother but it hadn't lasted and she had seen it again and again. It seem far too familiar - the raised hopes, the dashed dreams; the rise and fall, the departure of passion from the platform of necessity and the scars on her mother's arms.

God knows she had tried to inject realism. The burning men always became singed carcasses. There was soon no fuel left to burn. Couldn't she find a simmering man who boiled away below the surface and never quite went out? Couldn't she find a man called Colin whose mother knit all of his Cardigans for him?


She had winced when Robbie went through the spiel amid that curious foot tapping motion of his. Perhaps Robbie could have done it without mentioning his wife. Told her he was gay; anything but what he ended up saying. Laura had just sat there in the recliner puckering up her "nice one" face, wearing her attitude, even while she felt a sickening sliding sensation.


But now Laura started to wonder if she should be at the Red Dog at all. The last of the afternoon sun projected the railings through the grubby windows of the Red Dog; lines on the tables, power lines across the litter strewn street, a line across her arm - sharp like the incision of a knife. Laura wondered if she should call her mother but she ordered a herbal tea instead.



Friday, March 2, 2012

Of Wills and Canaries




If the sobering truth is to be told I have written the first chapter of a novel on a number of occasions. I tend to find it's the rest that's the problem. How do I flesh out my characters? How do I fill out the middle. I have an good idea about A and Z; it's just the letters in between that pose a problem.

I really am more determined this time. But already I can see a problem with letters D-M which make up rather a large chunk of the alphabet.

At least I feel in an iconoclastic mood. Tomorrow is March 1 (or at least it was when I started this post) and we'll wake up to find employees of Google rifling through our undergarments. Make the most of the next few hours.

LIKE A CANARY IN A COAL MINE

I did not see Paul Moriaty again for two months and when I did it was in unexpected and fleeting circumstances.

One Tuesday I walked into my office and was told I was going to Hackney. My supervisor seemed to be suppressing a giggle at the news which was uncharacteristic for her. I work at a law firm. People don't giggle generally or show any outward signs of humor.

I often wondered how I ended up as a paralegal. I blame the day when, clueless about my future I went to a Job Center. The twitchy, acne ridden guy behind the desk who probably wasn't much older than me, went through the usual range of unimaginative options involving being some kind of clerk or other. I sat in silence because my mother had instructed me to visit the Job Center and I had no idea why I was there. After a couple of minutes the silence became embarrassing and the acne ridden one started clearing his throat. I felt myself becoming nervous that he would start squeezing the pustules on his nose and wanted to get out and breathe some non stale, government subsidized, Job Center air.

"Well," he said finally.

"Well," I replied and overheard a sharply dressed young woman in the next booth talking about being a paralegal.

"Paralegal," I ventured.

"Yes. Good choice," he replied and pushed some forms in my direction. I won't say that settled my career path but as I meandered aimlessly through education it was always in the back of my mind. I filled them in and the rest, as they say, is history.

But that wasn't the end of my career angst. Later in life I started to think more about history. I would ask myself were Alexander the Great alive today would be be a paralegal? What about Julius Caesar? I doubted it very much, although I still have a strange recurring vision of Alexander stuck in a four mile line of traffic on the M-25, trying to barge other vehicles out of his way as if they were chariots, his angry thumb jammed on the mobile phone button to the Cones Hotline.

My boss was called Mrs. Jones. If she had a first name I couldn't imagine anyone ever addressing her by it. She was always rather controlled, sucked in and a bit withered. She was nothing like Mrs. Jones in Rising Damp who perversely I had a soft spot for, her voice aside. The day I went to Hackney Mrs. Jones was bordering on the jovial.

"I need you to take some details from a Mrs. Collins," she informed me. "She's rather old and a little eccentric, but you'll get the measure of her. Its...well... it's probate. Read the file on your desk first."

The thought of Hackney failed to galvanize me. I had been thinking of Hawaii a lot of late and Hackney seemed like a poor, palm tree bereft substitute, with the similarities running out somewhere after the H. Still I boarded a small commuter train and found myself shuttling through stations with names like Hackney Downs and Hackney Wick looking over a world of huddled terraces and gaunt concrete monstrosities that rose over greens of a most sickly hue. Hackney made no sense to me. There are places where you can live surrounded by crime, squalor and bad schools that are far cheaper to live in, without the feeling that the city has swallowed you up and discarded you.

Clapton meant little to me. My only knowledge of the place was from people who said it was borderline trendy. They were almost always confusing it with Clapham.

I took a cab and walked down a terraced house off Pembury Road. While I had always been dismissive of Hackney I was finding something stimulating in the urban grittiness on the street scene; the faint smell of cat piss, the shuffling hobo and the kind of pubs that looked like you could drink there all day until you slumped off your bar stool onto the floor and a jolly landlord would prop you up half an hour later and exhort you to buy a round for the whole bar. After two years of working at a law firm, there was something mildly attractive about disorder.

Mrs. Collins' home generally fell easily into the theme and marched behind. The three story terraced house was grand and rambling from across the street but when you came closer you saw the fissures in the stucco, the paint jumping ship off the railings, the bike rusting away at a subterranean level and Mrs Collins herself who was doing a good impression of being 110 even though she was probably not a day older than 80.

"I'm sorry about your loss, Mrs. Collins," I said, lowering my voice as per the firm training manual.

"It's quite a loss sir."

"You were close, I know. Let me see ... you were together 62 years."

Mrs Collins' already scrunched up face contracted further. "Nart that bastard."

"Oh. I see. Well I have some documents..." At this juncture I realized I had been so busy admiring the grubby inner city scape of Hackney I had forgotten to read any of the documents. I had no idea what this probate case was about and resolve to visit the toilet as soon as was polite, to acquaint myself with the paperwork.

"I have tea." It was a threat rather than an invitation.

"That sounds fine Mrs. Collins."

She headed to the kitchen and  heard a chorus of twittering as she brushed on a cage near the kitchen.

"What bird is that Mrs. Collins?"

She shot me a malevolent glance which I thought to be strange at the time given the innocuous nature of the question, before vanishing into a kitchen of stale yellow wallpaper that looked like it had been clinging to the walls since the war. There was an unclean and dull clattering noise that made me glad I was not witnessing the tea making process.

Then over a scalding cup of tea in a cracked mug I started going over the files. "All that time and you never married. Did you ever consider it?"

"Are you joking me?"

The old bird was a lot tougher than the on in the cage that was clearly a canary.

"I don't want to pry but," I said, the but hanging in the air like a big hook and an invitation to pry. "If you disliked him so much why were you together all that time?"

For a few seconds a lost expression passed over Mrs. Collins' face, as if I had asked her a question that never occurred to her before she snapped back. "He was there."

I felt like pointing out dog mess and chip wrappers on the street were there, but it's not normal practice to take them inside and cohabit with them for more than 60 years.

Then out of nowhere Mrs.Collins started to talk about a vicious argument in the most colorful of terms. The "f.. bastard' wanted to plant crocuses; she said they were a disappointment and insisted on daffodils. They had hardly spoken since. Then there was the stoke and he lost the power of speech. But not the power of glare.

The papers before me were interesting. The house was dilapidated but it was worth a lot of money and there was a parcel of land in Wimbledon of all places. I assumed the couple's differences had been sorted out in the will if not life until a line in the document jumped out at me. Her watery eyes met my gaze at the same time as the information entered my consciousness like a the sting of a north easter on a February day.

"So the estate was left Mrs. Collins to the um. Canary."

There wasn't so much to say once I had reached this pertinent line in the document that I should have read a few hours later.

"Well. Mrs Collins. Canary's don't live very long. I don't suppose he has a day job in a coal mine?"

By this time any wetness in her eyes had glazed over and given way to an unsettling flintiness. The feeling came over me that the life span of the canary would not be a long one.

Back on the mean little platform at Hackney Wick I reflected on my surreal morning and longed for the train to come to get me out of the borough and back to reality. As it appeared in the distance I noticed a scene nearby. The man was thick set but not excessively so. His hair was glossy black and his hands were moving jerkily through it. He was squared up to a dishevelled looking woman dirty blond, slightly wild and unkempt and a striking looking teenage girl stood between the two. I heard their voices rise and fall above the rush of the incoming train. The woman almost wailed, the man sounded lost in a deeper baritone and the girl gave off the air of referee in a wrestling match.

My train arrived but I strained my neck to watch this micro conflict on an unimportant inner city platform. The man, as if sensing my attention, turned and I had my second shock in the space of an hour. His features were those of my squash partner.